CEO pushes colleagues to adopt Filipino Olympians

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The chief executive officer of the Philippine unit of British American Tobacco (BAT) is pursuing another daunting goal besides keeping the cigarette firm profitable in the wake of rising excise tax rates.


Possessing a keen interest in sports, James Michael Lafferty wants to see at least one Filipino athlete win a gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Being CEO of a tobacco company is just my job. It is not what defines me,” Lafferty says.

A former track and field coach, Lafferty confesses that he is passionate about athletics because this is a potential venue through which a country can significantly boost its reputation to the world.

The annual increase in the excise tax rates on all cigarette brands that started in 2013, as mandated by the Sin Tax Reform law, is widely believed to drag profits of tobacco firms operating in the Philippines like BAT. This is also seen to put pressure on industry CEOs like Lafferty.

BAT, however, already has dismissed fears of income decline. The company earlier expressed support to the government’s tax reform and said doing business in the country would continue to be a sound move.

With the company’s positive income outlook despite the rising tax rates, Lafferty does not have to spend all his time trying to figure out how to maintain BAT’s market share.

A believer of having a balanced life, Lafferty intends to dedicate a portion of his spare time to helping the Philippines win an Olympic gold.

He believes the Philippines has enough talent to make it big in the global sports competition. However, he opines, the country falls substantially short in the area of funding training programs for its athletes.

An initiative that involves gathering of financial support for the training of its athletes should boost the country’s chances of winning its first gold when competitors from around the world gather in Rio de Jainero, Brazil two years from now, he says.

“The Philippines has not won an Olympic gold not because of lack of talent but because of lack of funding support for its athletes. It is about the time the country steps up,” he tells economic reporters in a recent briefing that was expected to revolve only around BAT’s market share and the company’s economic outlook.

Adopt an Olympian program

Putting money where his mouth is, the 51-year-old American executive is gathering other CEOs to realize his “Adopt an Olympian” program.

Under the program, one CEO ought to fund a full-range training of one Filipino athlete. The objective is to help the country win the elusive gold, preferably as early as 2016.

The Adopt an Olympian program is not just about giving away money, he explains. The program also entails helping out in the setting up of an entire system—which involves selection and hiring of a coach, a yoga instructor, a nutritionist/dietician, and a sports psychologist, as well as the design of a training program—meant to develop skills of an athlete.


“Adopts” Torres

In his case, Lafferty has “adopted” long jumper Marestella Torres, whom he believes has a great potential to win an Olympic gold medal.

According to Wikipedia, the 33-year-old Torres won the 2009 Asian Championships with her leap measuring 6.51 meters. She also won the silver medal in the 2005 Asian Championships.

Also, Torres participated in the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing, China,  and in the 2012 Olympics held in London.

“She [Torres] is very good, but she has never been given proper training. She would have been a gold medalist by now if she had been sufficiently supported before,” he says.

Lafferty is funding the training of Torres out of his own pocket. He says he already has selected people who will form Torres’ training team.

An Olympian from Nigeria was scheduled to go to the Philippines at the time of this writing to start her formal training, he says.

Lafferty says the achievements of Torres so far were encouraging given that she had never been given fully funded training. He has high hopes that Torres will make it even bigger in the field of long jump now that she has a team hired to develop her skills.


Sports psychologist

In a top-level competition such as the Olympics, Lafferty says, the difference between a winner and a loser could be very slim. That is why ensuring an athlete undergoes proper training and fitness program, and is given ample psychological conditioning is crucial, he says.

Hiring a sports psychologist is necessary in order to help an athlete manage his or her fear when performing before a large audience, he says.

Because fear of performing before a huge crowd is one of the most common forms of fear—and because athletes are meant to perform in front of a live and television audience—hiring a sports psychologist is as important as hiring other trainers, he adds.

“That is why a full training can be expensive,” Lafferty says.

“I can sponsor one athlete, but I cannot financially support many Filipino  athletes. That is why I am soliciting help from my fellow CEOs,” he says.


20 CEOs supporting 20 athletes

Lafferty is targeting to convince 19 other CEOs to join him in his advocacy. As of this writing, Lafferty says, he would already have spoken to 10 corporate heads whom he expects to commit to the Adopt an Olympian program.

He is out to convince 10 more.

“I already have spoken with 10 other CEOs and I told them: ‘I want you to come on board with me. Our goal is for the Philippines to get at least one gold in Rio’,” Lafferty says.

His Adopt an Olympian program is patterned after a system in Cuba where 20 athletes believed to have the greatest Olympic winning potential are funded by individuals who have capacity to financially support athletes.

Lafferty says having 20 fully funded athletes may be enough to boost a country’s chance of winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

If the aim is to get a gold medal, he explains, it is wiser to spend on full training of 20 athletes rather than spend on partial training of 100.

He says the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) will be asked to recommend the 19 other athletes who will be beneficiaries of the Adopt an Olympian program. The athletes should be those who have the biggest winning potential, he says.

“The athletes to be chosen should be those who are young and experienced in competitions,” Lafferty says.

Endearment for the Philippines

Lafferty could have opted to pursue his Adopt an Olympian program in any country, but he has chosen the Philippines where he has been based for quite some time.


Having worked for the Philippine units of Procter & Gamble and Coke prior to his stint at BAT, Lafferty, who is now on his eighth year in the Philippines, says he is eager to be of service to the Philippines in his own way, particularly through sports.

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